HELP! This Isn’t What I Expected (Older Child Adoption)

Dawn Davenport


older child adoption

You’ve been waiting years for this very moment. You’ve dreamed, planned, budgeted, taken classes, completed your homestudy, filled out mountains of paperwork, read books, held garage sales, and maybe even traveled around the world. All of it culminates in this very moment — the moment that you meet your child for the first time. When the time finally arrives, you run into each other’s arms then return home together where you’ll live happily ever after.

That’s how it happens — right? Well, maybe not exactly.

Adopting an older child is a big transition for everyone involved and poses a unique set of challenges, sometimes making adoptive parents wonder if what they’re experiencing is “normal” or if they’ve made a huge mistake.

Through the years, Holt’s director of clinical services, Abbie Smith, has helped many families and adoptees through the transitions of older child adoption. “One of the most important parts,” Abbie says, “is to expect the unexpected.” Even if adoption is the best way for an older child to have a loving, permanent family, their transition home can be difficult — full of miscommunications, frustrations and grief. And adoptive parents get scared when they start to feel some of those same emotions.

Below, Abbie shares some practical tools you can use to make the transition home go a little smoother — for both you and your child.

Be an Emotion-Scientist

Adoptive parents so often approach their child’s homecoming with a buildup of wonderful anticipation, but sometimes once they are home, their child can show fear or sadness that they don’t understand. While adoptive parents have years of excitement and anticipation leading up to the placement, their child probably had significantly less time processing their adoption, and may or may not have been emotionally prepared with the tools to make the transition.

Adoption is Both a Gain and a Loss for the Child

Through adoption, your child has gained the love and support of a permanent family, but their initial feelings may be those of loss — loss of their home, language, friends, food and culture. “So at first, they can be very sad and very scared,” Abbie says. “And it’s very common for those two feelings in human nature to come out as anger.”

While a parent’s first reaction may be to respond emotionally, it’s best to stay calm and think about the root of their child’s anger. “Be a scientist,” Abbie says. “Try to think, ‘Oh, they’re probably reacting to this because they’re so sad, or so scared.’” Learning a new language can also play a huge role. Similar to a baby, if a 10-year-old hasn’t yet mastered their new language, they may communicate their feelings in the only way they know how — through actions and outbursts.

When you as the adoptive parent remove your emotions while trying to understand those of your child, it’s a lot easier to respond with love and compassion rather than discipline and consequences. “A great way to do this is to validate the child’s feelings,” Abbie says. “Ask them if they’re having a hard day, or missing something from their birth country. This does so much to diffuse the situation.”

Respect Your Adopted Child’s Background

When an older child comes home, he or she has already had years of growth and development. The introduction to a new culture, with completely different societal norms, can be shocking and confusing. And adoptive families may run into this in many different ways — anywhere from eating habits to a strong sense of independence. And depending on the child’s age, they may have developed strong ties to their birth name, traditions, language and even belief system. So how do adoptive parents support their child while introducing them to their new culture and way of life?

“Parents should let those things unfold naturally,” Abbie says. “When you respect what they come home with, what they’ve already developed a value around, then they can have a better outcome.” Adoptive parents will be most successful if they show flexibility, ask questions and engage their child in the areas that are important to them.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

It’s never too early to ask for help. And it’s also nothing to be ashamed of. But you may not know where to start. A great first resource that many adoptive families may not think of, Abbie says, is their homestudy social worker.

Throughout the homestudy process, your social worker will come to know your family well. It can be hard to switch gears and approach your social worker about challenges you’re facing once your child is home. “But,” Abbie says, “you can reach out to them and say, ‘Hey, it’s not going the way I thought it would go — what do I do?’” Chances are they will have great insight into your family and can give you some good advice and tools. If your social worker sees that you’re running up against the same problems again and again, the next step may be adoption-competent therapy for your child and family.

Give it Some Time

Some parents are taken back that they didn’t experience “love at first sight” with their older adopted child. Others feel like they are babysitting someone else’s child who never seems to go home. But don’t worry. “That’s a very common reaction,” Abbie says. In the case of an older child, biology is simply not in your favor as there isn’t the same dependency that facilitates an immediate bond with an infant. Many adoptive parents report that it simply takes time to feel that deep parent-child connection.

One great way to work on developing this special bond is to simply play together! No matter how old your child is, find something they enjoy doing, get down on their level and have fun together.

The transition home with an older child can bring some unique challenges, but with some tools and a little preparation, there’s a lot parents can do to show love and support to their child throughout the process — making it as smooth as possible.

Other Creating a Family resources you will enjoy:

by Megan Herriott | Holt International

08/06/2016 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 3 Comments

3 Responses to HELP! This Isn’t What I Expected (Older Child Adoption)

  1. Avatar Jo Burrows says:

    I am writing as a therapist, LMFT, on behalf of a client of mine. My client finds herself in a strange situation, with her husband. He had a child out of wedlock (essentially a 1 night stand) and over the years, attempted to do right by his daughter, by doing what he could to keep in touch. However the Mother dissuaded him from staying in contact; but he continued to try. Fast forward, the Mother ends up in jail, and worsening with a drug addiction. The child is put into the foster system; and that is when the Father is contacted. Not wanting to be viewed as an ‘absent father’ in the system, he and his wife agree to take the child. They did this rather quickly, and without having time to sit on the matter.

    A year and a half later, the couple continue to struggle with this girl, of 9 years, and despite their efforts, do not see this as a good fit for them. They also worry that this girl has been plucked out of her home in Oregon, is a way from her GM, and friends. She is African American; the family is white, and lives in the SF Bay Area. The wife, who is my client, wonders what rights they have, given her husband is the biological Father. The foster family that the child had just been tried with, prior to the couple taking them on, had themselves felt it was a poor fit after a month, and recommended she be tried with another family. And I suppose my client is wondering why she and her husband might not have some such rights, if they see it as a poor fit. In other words, I guess they are wondering if they can reverse the decision; and want to know what their options are. The couple, meanwhile, have two other children, and both are feeling desperate to accommodate a third child, who has serious attachment and borderline issues. This is not my area of specialty, so any resources you could pass me onto, I would be grateful! Warmly, Jo Burrows

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      Hi Jo. You are asking both specific legal and psychological questions, are since we are neither family law/adoption attorneys or therapists we are not qualified to answer. However, I’ll share some thoughts from a lay perspective as someone knowledgeable in this field. First, I would be very very cautious of diagnosing a child that has had her life turned completely upside down with something as serious as attachment issues. It does happen, but a child that has been securely attached with a caregiver as a baby is most often able to attach firmly again to another caregiver. I realize that your description of the situation was not all-inclusive, but it struck me in reading it that there felt like a lack of compassion for this child, and I wondered if this reflected a lack of full commitment from her stepmom. Many families are raising a child of a different race and are able to make room in their lives and schedules to provide the child with role models and peers of their race. Many families adopt a child from a neighboring state and are able to make an effort to ease the child’s adjustment through visits to grandparents and friends from home.

      One thing that is often overlooked in our discussion of attachment is that it is a two way street–meaning that it is equally important that the parents attach (or some psychologist prefer the term bond) to the child, and an issues with parental attachment cause much of the same problems as a weak child attachment. A weak parental attachment also can cause behavioral problems and attachment problems in the child. The good news is that attachment–both the child attaching to the parents and the parents attaching to the child–is something that can improve by working with a therapist knowledgable in adoption and attachment, and if the parents are willing to work at it.

      I will tell you that many kinship adoptions (where extended family members step forward to adopt a child) struggle to find their footing because they did not plan on adopting and usually stepped forward because there was a need and did so without a great deal of forethought and planning. I don’t think he is technically a kinship adoption because he is the father, but there are some similarities. Again, these families can be helped to accommodate to the changes in their life if they are willing.

      My suggestion is that you recommend that your client and her husband immediately get into family therapy with a therapist trained in adoption. It sounds to me like they need help adjusting as a family to an unplanned major life change and help in how to attach to this child and help her also adjust to a major unplanned life change. I also suggest that if after they get help to work through their problems, they still do not want to parent his daughter that they contact a family law attorney to see what their options are. They also need to think through with their therapist the lifelong emotional ramifications for them and for the child of turning his daughter over to the foster care system. (I am assuming that there are no other extended family members able to raise this child since she was put in foster care after her mother was incarcerated.) She may not even be eligible for adoption if her mom’s parental rights have not been terminated. Again, this is outside of our area of expertise.

      I hope this has helped some. This story breaks my heart.

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